Feeling the distance

mumblings

In the winter, when we had the snow, I walked to work for the first time from our current house. I don't know why I hadn't tried it before: we live quite a distance from the University, but it's a walkable distance. Perhaps the problem was that I knew only fragments of the area between home and work, and simply thought that the distance was too great to make it a practical proposition. Like many people, I know narrow ribbons of routes that I drive or cycle or travel on the train or bus, but I have little real idea how these ribbons relate to one another.

Anyway, the enforced walks during the snow made me see that it was not only possible, but positively enjoyable, and a nice, bracing change from my usual routine. I now try to walk one or both ways to work one day a week, cycling the rest of the time, and I look forward to that day. A whole academic field — Psychogeography — has sprung up to study the effect that walking has on the way that people perceive and feel about the urban environment. Will Self has an interest in this area, and tries to walk from his house to the airport and to the hotel at the other end of his journey, in order to properly experience the distance.

The deeper points of the theory are beyond me, but I do think that walking changes the way that you see an area, and also gives you a better grasp on the real distance between places. We tend to often think of distances in terms of time — often the time taken to get somewhere by car or public transport: "it's about half an hour away", we'll say. However, the real distance is how long it would take you to walk, and how much energy that would cost you. After all, if society crumbled and you could no longer rely on motorised transport, or even mechanical devices like bikes, the one thing you would have left would be your own feet. Walking may be slow, but it is extremely reliable: I know to within a couple of minutes how long it will take me to walk a familiar route. It's difficult to say the same about driving, taking the train or even cycling, though delays are less frequent on a bike unless you have a mechanical problem or a puncture.

I've always enjoyed walking. I like the mindless, repetitive, putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other aspect of it, which frees your mind to think about other things. I often solve problems, have ideas or get a new perspective on things which have been worrying or irritating me as I walk, but I'm not just focussed on internal things. You have time, while walking, to look around you and notice things. I admire the flowers in people's front gardens, watch the play of light through trees and listen to bird song.

When people at work find out that I sometimes walk to work, and how far it is, they look at me like I'm crazy, but I think it makes perfect sense. I arrive at work (or home) a bit tired, but knowing exactly where I am, how I got there, and the real distance I have covered. Everything feels more real, more solid and better connected, in an odd way. It's also great exercise. It may take me over an hour to walk one way to work, but many people take an hour out of their day to get in their car, drive to a gym and spend an hour running or walking on a treadmill, going nowhere and staring at a wall or mirror. That's crazy.

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